The Common Good
July-August 2002

Secretary of Woe

by Walter Brueggemann | July-August 2002

What God and the genius of capitalism have in common. A Bible study on the book of Job. And more.

Former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, an embarrassment to the Bush administration, was among the first to comment publicly on the Enron debacle in 2002, with a sound bite that is likely to endure as a signature statement of the market ideology of the Bush years:

"Companies come and go; it is part of the genius of capitalism."

The comment was a powerful disclosure of the governing ideology of our society. We may observe of that sound bite:

1) O'Neill spoke without any hint of irony. He seemed genuinely to believe his own mantra.

2) At the same time, however, we had to credit O'Neill, a consummate insider, with an immense cover-up in his utterance. He innocently suggested that capitalism is an unfettered system that operates unencumbered, all by itself. O'Neill, however, did not live in a bubble of isolation. He undoubtedly knew of the multiple covert manipulations by the key market players in their influence upon government, whereby the cards are stacked for the big ones and against the little ones.

3) One is struck in his sound bite by a remarkable lack of empathy for those who genuinely lose and suffer when "companies go," for the "going" is not simply a statistical fluctuation, but a huge displacement that includes loss of job and savings, and often thereby loss of home. O'Neill's dismissive slogan continued:

"Part of the genius of capitalism is people get to make good decisions or bad decisions, and they get to pay the consequences or to enjoy the fruits of their decisions."

Of course O'Neill knew better than that. He knew that those at top management may make "bad decisions" while underlings get "to pay the consequences." Some "enjoy the fruits" of decisions, good fruits of bad decisions, while others pay severely for those same decisions. O'Neill himself benefited but not suffered from the genius of capitalism, certainly not from the "bad decisions" of others that would disable his fortune or his future.

O'Neill's comment then—"innocent," deceptive, and devoid of empathy—surely exhibited a kind of self-serving ruthlessness that increasingly becomes a trademark of business-cum-government or government-cum-business, a combine that lacks any capacity for self-criticism.

O'NEILL'S UTTERANCE nicely factored out as a point-by-point equivalent of Job's blasé piety at the outset of his drama of loss and suffering:

"The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).

Job's initial utterance after his own loss resonates in detail with O'Neill's comment upon the loss of other people in the capitalist system:

1) Job: "The Lord giveth." O'Neill: "Companies come." If we entertain the parallel, both speakers imagine an initial, almost inexplicable good, a gift of God or gift of the "Invisible Hand." In both cases, the initial good is credited to the Key Actor in the overriding meta-narrative—for Job, Yahweh; for O'Neill, the "genius of capitalism."

2) Job: "The Lord taketh away." O'Neill: "Companies go." The two statements continue in parallel. Both acknowledge loss. Both credit loss to their respective Key Actors. For Job, loss is not capricious but is due to the trustworthy action of Yahweh. For O'Neill, "companies go," not because of caprice, but because it is the "genius of capitalism" to guarantee "consequences for bad decisions." Thus Job and O'Neill both operate with a rigorous assumption of "deed and consequence."

However, O'Neill's explanation of loss was duplicitous because he pretended not to know of the covert manipulations that produce such loss. In like manner, Job's pious acceptance of loss as "The Lord taketh away" is also a cover-up of covert manipulation, only in his case, Job is not privy to the manipulation. The deal Yahweh cuts with Satan in Job 1:10-12 means that in the case of Job we are not dealing with a straightforward, reliable "genius of Yahweh." Rather we are dealing with covert manipulation on the part of Yahweh that is decisive, even though Job is completely unaware. Thus we may conclude that Job's affirmation of Yahweh is no more credible than was O'Neill's celebration of "the genius of capitalism."

3) Job: "Blessed be the name of the Lord." O'Neill: "the genius of capitalism." The first two statements—"The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away"; "companies come, companies go"—produce third utterances that are closely parallel. Job finds that gift and loss credited to God do not disrupt his initial piety and will not preclude a nice, general affirmation in support of the system of Yahweh's governance. In parallel fashion, O'Neill's observations of coming and going do not disrupt O'Neill's supreme confidence in the system. The data do not disrupt the larger claim; if anything they confirm it, so strong in both cases is the foundational affirmation.

MY INTENTION is not to make a critique of O'Neill, except to recognize that his statement was a deep example of the power of market ideology. Rather my purpose is to consider how O'Neill's capitalist "doctrine" stands in parallel to Job's piety, recognized by critics as a simplistic act of faith that amounts to a huge denial of the facts on the ground. It may be that such disregard of the facts on the ground, in both cases, was a necessary strategy for coping with the unbearable. Nonetheless it was a cover-up that precludes any healing or transformation.

Beyond that, we may observe three important distinctions between the two implicit pieties:

1) Job's statement of trust and affirmation, unlike that of O'Neill, is in the wake of his own profound loss. Now this may mean that Job engages in an even deeper form of denial in order to protect the very "system" that has done him in. Indeed Job in his utterance introduces nothing to suggest that "the Lord taketh away" is a judgment of punishment for some, whereas O'Neill can see that the "genius of capitalism" grounds bad consequences in bad decisions. Like Job's friends, O'Neill suggested that the fault lies with the practitioner of the market, not the Key Actor, thus guilt (bad judgment) is indicated in order to protect the system from criticism. Or to put it theologically, guilt in human practice serves to keep "God" completely innocent.

2) There is more to come from Job, after his initial expression of piety. As we know, Job very soon runs beyond his pietistic cover-up on behalf of God's reputation and, finally, fully gives credence to his own pain, enough to critique the system of Yahweh. Thus his capacity to voice the immediacy of pain permits him to castigate his friends who blindly defend the system of Yahweh, and eventually to assault God as a cheat and dishonest judge (Job 9:20-22). The Job who speaks here is not wont to "bless the name of the Lord" or to defend the system of moral desert over which Yahweh presides.

By contrast O'Neill, at least by press time in summer 2002, had no next utterance to make. If he had real contact with loss or connection to the Job-like underlings at Enron, O'Neill might have the capacity to lament a system gone corrupt.

3) For purposes of argument I have treated as parallel O'Neill's affirmation of "the genius of capitalism" and Job's affirmation of Yahweh. The parallel is noteworthy because O'Neill claimed that the "genius of capitalism" stands without answering to any deeper measure. That of course is precisely the theological arrogance of market ideology: It seeks to enact not a human arrangement for the management of economic goods, but an ontological force beyond critique.

Job finally appeals to "the God above God," turning as he does from the God of simple deserts to the true God, the one beyond all categories given us in the speeches from the whirlwind (Job 38-41). Job learns that the simple God of blessing and curse—that is, the God of consequences for good and bad decisions—is not an adequate God. In the world of O'Neill, however, there was no God beyond "the genius of capitalism." The real world of human loss and hurt grows thin and cold while the nervy narrative of the market becomes a total reality.

THE SORT OF WORLD that O'Neill voiced was not reassuring; indeed, it was not even interesting. Job is more credible and more interesting, because he has not reached a point of total explanation. He is permitted character development. Like O'Neill, Job begins as the Secretary of the Treasury, keeping accounts of merits and demerits. He subsequently resigns as Secretary of the Treasury, however, to take on a new, independent role as Secretary of Woe, responsible to voice hurt, pain, and loss.

But even beyond that, he voices the corrupt failure of the "system" so stridently that he evokes Yahweh, who now breaks out of the simple system of piety (Job 38-41). Job evokes restoration, moreover, having gotten enough attention from God to secure restoration for his little self, a self not to be dismissed in the gratification of the system. Our society, in its capitalist orgy, needs a cadre of Secretaries of Woe to carry the dispute to the next phase, a shrill voicing of loss and hurt that may lead to the redress of the "iron laws" of the system that postures itself as beyond critique.

It is not too much to hope that even in a world of government-cum-business or business-cum-government, some inhabitants of the Treasury Department may step forward to acknowledge woe, after the God of Job: "And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before" (Job 42:10).

"Twice as much" is a nice redress from the dominant power who cheated—in both cases—the ones with real needs. Could such a fresh initiative be possible among us, that Treasury would break out of dismissive mantras of "genius" into the world of acknowledgement and reparations?

Walter Brueggemann was the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and author of Ichabod Toward Home: The Journey of God's Glory (Eerdmans, 2002), when this article appeared.

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